Instruction: Clarify butter.
Why it's done: Butter is melted so that the milk solids separate from the fat; the clear fat won't burn as fast when used to sauté meat or vegetables.
Can you skip that step? Yes. The two best options: Mix equal parts butter and refined oil―the butter still adds flavor and helps meat brown faster, but the oil raises the burning point. Or quickly clarify butter in the microwave (be sure to cover it). Melt it, wait for the milk solids to settle to the bottom, and pour off the clear liquid.
Instruction: Fold egg whites into a chocolate (or some other) mixture in 2 parts.
Why it's done: To avoid losing the volume of the whipped egg whites.
Can you skip that step? No. Light-as-a-feather egg whites go flat as a pancake if you fold the whole batch of them into a heavier base (say, chocolate). You will deflate the egg whites while trying to marry the two mixtures. Adding ¼ to 1/3 cup of the egg whites to the dense mixture lightens it up a bit, so when you add the rest, you can fold it in easily without fearing collapse. "Make efficient strokes so you can use fewer. Use the spatula like an oar, lifting it up and folding it over rather than slicing through it," says Katherine Alford, test kitchen director at the Food Network.
Instruction: Alternate wet and dry ingredients.
Why it's done: Some say this is done to avoid a mess (adding large amounts of flour or liquid at one time would create clouds of dust or splatters). Others say adding flour at intervals means you beat it less, resulting in less gluten development and a more tender cake (glutens are strands of protein that give bread its structure; they form when flour gets wet and is then stirred).
Can you skip that step? Yes. Our experts disagreed on the exact way to incorporate flour and butter with liquid ingredients such as eggs and milk, but none insisted on a multiple-step program of alternating ingredients. The more flour you can mix into the butter and sugar before adding liquid, the less gluten development you'll get, says Shirley D. Corriher, author of Cookwise ($30, amazon.com), so dump in as much flour as possible before you add liquid.
Instruction: Drain the yogurt.
Why it's done: To drain excess liquid whey when making a thick dip, such as the Greek tzatziki. It's also required when you substitute yogurt for sour cream and need a similar, heavy consistency.
Can you skip that step? Sometimes. You could end up with a runny dip if the yogurt contains too much moisture. However, if you are using yogurt in a marinade or a thin sauce, you'll be fine. A time-saving tip: Instead of plunking a 3-inch-thick hunk of yogurt in a strainer and waiting 30 minutes for it to drain, "spread it out, ½ inch thick, on two layers of paper towels, which soak up moisture. It will take 10 to 15 minutes," says Alford.
Instruction: Grind your own spices.
Why it's done: Freshly ground coriander tastes better than dried powder from a jar.
Can you skip that step? Yes. You will get an extra pop from freshly ground spices, but you also need a spice grinder and whole spices, which aren't always available in supermarkets. (One exception is black pepper, which tastes much better freshly ground. Look for peppercorns sold in a ready-to-use grinder, such as McCormick's.) When it comes to baking, "freshly ground spices might matter if you are trying to win the county-fair baking contest, but not generally," says Nancy Baggett, author of The All-American Dessert Book ($35, amazon.com).
Instruction: Tie a roast, a tenderloin, or the legs of a chicken with string.
Why it's done: Trussing makes everything more compact and allows you to tuck in smaller ends of a roast. The more uniform the shape, the more evenly it cooks.
Can you skip that step? Yes. The worst that will happen with untrussed meat is that you'll get a medium-rare tenderloin with a well-done tip―perfect, in fact, for that finicky uncle who always requests a piece that's not pink. Tying chicken legs isn't necessary, either. "You should be roasting a whole chicken on an elevated rack that forms a V to cradle the chicken, and that will hold the chicken together just fine," says Alford. Make sure to tuck the chicken's legs toward the body before setting it on the the rack. Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Cake Bible ($35, amazon.com) says, "When you tie chicken legs together, the air doesn't flow around them as well, and parts of the skin will get steamed instead of crispy."